…Examined in the Work of Catherine Opie and Jeremy Chandler
Working for years in animal sanctuaries and particularly with wolves and dogs has reaffirmed my faith – as if I ever had any doubt – about the exquisite efficiency of evolution and the inherent fairness of zoology. Zoology as an academic research field is of course as subject to factionalized competition and disagreement as is any other institutional department, but recent progress in the association of particular encodings of DNA with concurrent traits in “personality” and appearance provides more and more support for the argument that as many traits of behavior are determined by biochemistry as by influences of external development. Thus the current position held by most visual culture analysts that racial differences amid humans exist purely as a social construct holds is for me a site of both skepticism based upon the seemingly oppositional tenets of science and intense fascination – because I want to believe.
The past few years have reached a zenith in demand for the exploration of “whiteness” by the institutional art community, which has sensationalized the subject of the invisible visible race – or at least certain freakish (thus highly visible) subcultures of whiteness. In this paper I will examine the developing area of the study of whiteness using selected works by photographers Catherine Opie and Jeremy Chandler as objects of analysis to frame the arguments of art historians working around this issue, particularly Amelia Jones, the Pilkington Chair Holder at Manchester University. First, however, I believe it is necessary to establish a context for Jones’s work on “whiteness studies” in its appropriate place in the academic continuum of “other studies.” A conclusion will revisit the contrarian view that the perception of race, while the source hostility culminating in the of the infliction of excruciating human agonies, remains a biological issue as well as a social problem and must be dealt with as such, even by visual culturists, as a scientific issue as well as a representational one.
Basing his psychological practice on the preceding work of Jacques Lacan but his writing, partially, on direct observation and personal interpretation, Frantz Fanon warned in Les Damnés de la Terre (1961) about the long suffering victims and subjects of colonialism awakening and rising, determined to resolve by any means possible the problems for which whites (in the United States as well as Europe) have caused but offered no solution. Fanon was right about the violence in places such as both South Africa (now thoroughly recapitalized) and in the Republic of Congo (where the fallout of colonial collapse is a constant state of civil war). In the landscape of visual culture the person who has most successfully introduced violence to the institution is Kara Walker, who creates black paper silhouettes she derives conceptually from imagined Civil War-era narratives about African American life if the Southern United States. Walker, who has been criticized for promulgating negative stereotypes (by Betye Saar, no less), describes her work “both there and not there.”
One of the problems with the ongoing academic conversations about blackness, whiteness, otherness, and so on is this hesitancy to make direct connections – even in installations designed for “experienced viewers” – between implied and actual physical domination and ownership. At least Fanon advocated the practical as well as the psychosocial. Two relatively recent formative essays on strategies to investigate othering, “The Other Question: The Stereotype And Colonial Discourse” by Homi K. Bhabha and “The Marco Polo Syndrome: Some Problems Around Art and Eurocentrism” by Gerardo Mosquera are endemic to what the authors claim is their greater social purposes, that of increasing awareness of the history of aggressive otherness-projection and expansionism on the parts of North American and Western European cultures and in doing so fomenting a macro solution for the present-day woes of such lingering malaises.
Mosquera and Bhabha, from superficially different backgrounds, come up with similar approaches in addressing the casting of “the Other.” Bhabha, a Harvard University professor of linguistics who has been cited numerous times by The New York Times “Review of Books” for the incomprehensibility of his own prose, does open the topic that practices of racial alienation come in more than one version, though he suggest that making racism a monolithic evil is ingrained in white academic culture: “Fixity, as the sign of cultural/historical/racial difference in the discourse of colonials, is a paradoxical mode of representation: it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition. Likewise the stereotype, which is its major discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge and identification.”
Bhabha cites the condition of ambivalence as a cross-cultural ill, however, defining ambivalence roughly as a passive, ingrained acceptance of racist beliefs as opposed to an active, percolating — and thus consciously considered — hostility. Bhabha does not express much of a sense of autoambivalence either, as he did not feel strongly enough about Great Britain, the colonizer of India, to boycott an education from Oxford University.
Bhabha’s refers directly to his greatest influence, Palestinian scholar and activist Edward Said in expanding upon “Orientalist” theories: “…the unconscious pool of colonial discourse and the unproblematised notion of the subject, restricts the effectives of both power and knowledge … those terrifying stereotypes of savagery, cannibalism, lust and anarchy which are the signal points of identification and alienation, scenes of fear and desire, in colonial texts.”
Bhabha argues that in order for racial stereotypes be read, they must first be identified using a systemic method of terminology. Bhabha says that the projection of alienating qualities resulting in racism continues through lack (the regular kind of lack, not the Lacanian kind) of examination of deep-seated cultural and subconscious teachings and beliefs: “Stereotyping is not the setting of a false image which become the scapegoat of discriminatory practices. It is a much more ambivalent text of project and interject, metaphoric and metonymic strategies, displacement, overdetermination, guilt, aggressivity, the masking and splitting of official and phantasmatic knowledges to construct the positionalities and oppositioanlities of racist discourses.”
Gerard Mosquera also addresses the perception of the other, specifically in reference to institutional viewing, in “The Marco Polo Syndrome: Some Problems Around Art and Eurocentrism.” Mosquera, a curator and critic who is one of the founders of the Havana Biennale and now an affiliate of the multi-locationed ArtNexus show, suggests that the white mentality toward conquest, expansion and acquisition is a continuing function of Western perception of the “otherness” of different or remote cultures. Fortunately the public at large is somehow becoming aware of this issue: “Only now has an understanding of cultural pluralism and the usefulness of dialogue begun to spread to such an extent that the intercultural problematic has become a major issue.” (This also augurs that awareness of “whiteness” as an identifiable, discussable topic will soon enter popular culture “issue.”)
Marco Polo Syndrome is therefore identified holistically by analyzing “how current art in a given country or region satisfies the aesthetic, culture, social and communicative demands of the community from and for which it is made. its response is mostly mixed, relational, appropriative, — anyway, “inauthentic, and therefore more adequate to face today’s reality.”
“The contemporary artistic scene is a very centralized system of apartheid,” Mosquera continues, though he concludes: “Intercultural involvement consists not only of accepting the Other in an attempt to understand him or her and to enrich myself with his or her diversity. It also implies that the Other does the same thing with me, problematising my self-awareness. The cure for the Marco Polo Syndrome entails overcoming centrisms with enlightenment from a myriad of different courses.”
So the concept of white privilege is an ingrained aspect of the Euro-American culture, and the cure for its unconscious omniscience is examining its unquestioned sense of entitlement. In the 2003 extended museum catalogue article “The Obscenity of Whiteness” Amelia Jones advocates a reexamination of the practices that construct whiteness as “a site of racial difference.” Jones describes personal experiences from childhood in which she became conscious not just of her race (she is white) but of her projection of whiteness onto nonwhites. Jones believes that the denaturalization of white privilege can be achieved by exposing it as obscene, “remove its familiarity and make it into something strange. In so doing we render it ethnic rather than invisible.” The act of making whiteness visible and ethnic is an assessment of the cycle of socialization, not a method for the mobilization for the redistribution of privileges. Can “disidentification,” the process Jones names for the process of whiteness recognition and rejection (by whites) activate social change when whiteness is the only identity considered? Jones claims that the process of disidentification can “change what it means to have lightly pigmented skin (or whatever else gives us access to whiteness) in today’s world).” Instead perhaps this “theatricalization” presents a new form of exploitation, an exploitation of the emotions associated of belonging to a privileged class within a privileged race.
In the artist statement on his Web site, University of South Florida master of fine arts candidate and professional photographer Jeremy Chandler writes that he explores “communities that exist in isolation and am intrigued with the ways which cultural archetypes can both dissolve and perpetuate within secluded spaces.” Chandler examines rural white subcultures though some of his photographs are carefully staged to capture subjects’ actions in their environments, heightening the (institutional) viewers’ sensitivity to the whiteness that they are traversing. Through these “pregnant pauses” he successfully instills feelings of anxiety and anticipation. His works present themselves as staged documents, representations of whiteness that convinces the viewer to affirm or deny their perception of whiteness or non-whiteness: “Interrogating one’s relationship to whiteness when one benefits from this relationship is an unsettling experience.”
Chandler is not just interested in portraying white people, but the peculiarities of white culture and the environment they operate within. The Mud Bog (2006) series explores aspects of subjectivity that go against the grain of invisible whiteness. While Chandler’s works do not necessarily provoke a sense of white superiority, they produce awareness that there is a certain code to being white that non whites do not know. His portrayal of people as hunters and mud boggers do not suggest any overt message of racial prejudice; instead their isolation from nonwhites stimulates an awareness of a certain discomfort toward the history associated with segregated white culture of the south. The discomfort derives from the expressions of not just of confidence and pride, but of a certain aura of loneliness found in Chandler’s subjects. The Mud Bog and Hunters (2007) series reveal a nascent awareness of the segregated, particular nature of rural expeditions with trucks and guns. Jones compares this instance of realization to Lacan’s mode of subject formation. Just as an infant looking at itself in the mirror recognized himself as separate being from its projection n the mirror, “whiteness as a cultural sign become easily detached from any perceived connection with an individual self.”
With the intent of his photographs being viewed in a museum, classroom, or other institutional setting, Chandler is able to present his subjects as engaging in some “in perverse enactment of whiteness.” The audience may then distance themselves from the whiteness portrayed but they are also made conscious of the exclusivity of their race. The theatricalization of whiteness has become a successful topic in the art world because it presents specific white subcultures with the same strangeness and exoticism found in images portraying minority cultures. In some ways the popularity of such white subject matter relies on the exploitation of people representing the “stranger” aspects of whiteness
Novelist, essayist, critic and poet Dorothy Allison summarizes the sideshow aspect of current modes of “othering” wherein it is acceptable to gawk at citizens of exurbia: “The inescapable impact of being born in a condition of poverty that this society finds shameful, contemptible, and somehow deserved, has had dominion over me to such an extent that I have spent my life trying to overcome or deny it … Class, race, sexuality, gender and all the other categories by which we categorize and dismiss each other need to be excavated from the inside.” Chandler’s photographs make this task difficult because his subjects “are/are not” otherized. Catherine Opie, an established American photographer from Sandusky, Ohio, who has long worked in the realm of marginalized populations; her recent body of work does address whiteness in direct and oppositional portraiture.
Opie’s recent photographic series of teenaged American football players examines white male identity (when the audience of viewers consists of those accustomed to analyzing images in a museum or academic setting; otherwise, they are just photographs of high-school athletes). In the image Dusty (2007), an adolescent with a flushed face and protruding arm veins wearing a Notre Dame jersey presents a decidely downscale image of aspiration except when compared with Marqeil (2007), from the same series. Viewed in comparison to Marqeil, Dusty presents the stoic façade of heroism, athleticism, sexuality suppressed in service to colonial expansionism. Marqeil on the other hand – frowning, posturing, with his boxer shorts peaking up from his drab field pants, is cast in the role of primitive, natural athlete, and hoodlum. Though at a glance Marqeil and Dusty are similar portraits – taken at midrange, outdoors, Opie gives them starkly encoded aesthetic differences. The shift in tenebrism between from Dusty to Marqeil gives the latter a less-than-elite veneer; it seems a mere snapshot in comparison to Dusty, which bears some of Opie’s trademark highly saturated coloration. Dusty’s dark background provides a contrast to the paleness of his skin, whereas Marqeil has a lighter setting that makes his skin look darker, thus emphasizing the adolescents’ “phenotypes” of difference. Opie forces the white viewer to acknowledge with the obvious assumption that Marqeil is at a disadvantage. While variance in expectations of the ideal is apparent between each Dusty and Marqeil, their intersectionality and commonality is also visible in their youthful masculinity. Opie fulfills Jones’s wish for disidentification nonetheless by creating a theatrical space most – institutionalized or not – can relate to, that of the football field as stage.
The world of visual culture seems content to have “whiteness” emerge and thrive as the “identity art” of the early 21st Century, perhaps becoming a going genre concern along the lines of abstract expressionism, which still has fits and starts of resurgencies of interest. The insistence upon have race “acted out” as a theatrical spectacle will ensure longevity of investigation. This seems to place the art world outside the realm of the progressive since differences in race are obviously a literal reality, not a conceit for the guilt-stricken or well-meaning.
When we view ourselves in the mirror we are looking at our reflection, not the way others view us in real life. We assume that how we look in the in the mirror is the way others see us. But in reality others can only see what we ourselves see in the mirror if they look into the mirror with us. An effective work on the subject of whiteness must make the point that a white person can recede into privilege, and just not worry about racism, by choice. Nonwhites cannot.
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